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John Locke (1632-1704)

John Locke was born in 1632, during the reign of Charles I, and died in 1704, two years after the accession of Queen Anne. His life covered an unusually turbulent period of English history and […]

John Locke was born in 1632, during the reign of Charles I, and died in 1704, two years after the accession of Queen Anne. His life covered an unusually turbulent period of English history and his fortunes were affected by the stresses of the times in which he lived. He was born at Wrington in Somerset, the son of a West Country lawyer. The Civil War broke out when young Locke was ten years old and his father joined the Parliamentary army. Locke spent his childhood in Somerset and at the age of fourteen was sent to Westminster School where he stayed until his election to a junior studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1652. From his Thoughts on Education, published in 1693, Locke seems not to have been favourably impressed either by the curriculum at Westminster or with the savage discipline of the English public school of his time.

At Oxford he was introduced to philosophy. The characteristic conservatism of that university restricted philosophical studies at the time to a particularly arid form of medieval Aristotelianism, ‘perplexed’, as Locke described it, ‘with obscure terms and useless questions’. But though he thought little of the rather debased form of scholasticism which he had to study as an undergraduate, he absorbed more of it than he realized. Many of the suppressed premises of his own thinking were derived from medieval scholasticism and he never quite succeeded in reconciling the unacknowledged influence of his scholastic training with the natural trend of his own thought. But his interest in philosophy seems to have been excited not by his official studies at Oxford but by his private reading of Descartes. The rather artless clarity of Descartes’ writing impressed him by its contrast with the scholastic ‘unintelligible way of talking’ and made him realize that philosophy could be more than pretentious verbalizing and term-shuffling.

But though he admired Descartes’ way of writing he was not greatly impressed by his philosophical opinions. Here again, however, he found it difficult, as all philosophers do, to keep his thinking unaffected by contemporary influences and the fourth book of the Essay in particular shows a strong Cartesian influence.

Locke took his B.A. degree at Oxford after four years’ study and his M.A. two years later. In 1659 he was elected to a Senior Studentship at Christ Church tenable for life. He became lecturer in Greek the following year and subsequently Reader in Rhetoric and Censor of Moral Philosophy. After he had laid down the office of Censor in 1664, Locke seems to have been in some doubt about his future. The usual consummation of a university don’s career would have been to take holy orders. Locke did not wish to do so, partly perhaps because his rather liberal religious opinions, combined with his natural sincerity, made such an equivocal acceptance of orthodoxy impossible for him, but also because he was much more attracted to the study of medicine. He had some difficulty in taking a medical degree and it was not until 1674 that he was granted a faculty by the Chancellor of Oxford to practise medicine. By this time he had secured his B.M. degree and he was now given the degree of Doctor of Medicine. He continued to practice from time to time but he did not take up medicine as a regular profession.

An alternative career was opened to him by the offer of an appointment as secretary to a diplomatic mission to the Elector of Brandenburg. This was the beginning of an active interest in public affair which was to involve Locke rather embarrassingly in the uncertainties of seventeenth-century politics. The mission, headed by Sir Walter Vane, left England in November 1665. After two months of diplomatic manoeuvres, the Elector refused to sell, at the price offered, either his alliance or a promise of neutrality in the Dutch war, and the mission returned to England empty-handed. On his return, Locke declined a further diplomatic post and took up residence in Oxford again to continue his medical studies.

In the summer after his return, Locke made the acquaintance of Lord Ashley, later to become the first Earl of Shaftesbury. Acting for a medical friend, Locke attended Ashley who had come to Astrop near Oxford to drink the local medicinal waters. Each man seems to have been impressed with the abilities and personality of the other and the meeting was the beginning of a friendship which lasted until Shaftesbury’s death in 1683.

Shaftesbury was one of the most influential men in politics during the reign of Charles II. No one has ever doubted his abilities but his character is not so well attested. Dryden satirized him savagely in Absalom and Achitophel. Macaulay, a fellow Whig, said of him that he was a man ‘in whom the immorality which was epidemic among the politicians of that age appeared in its most malignant form’. He had, indeed, the most useful of all politician’s talents, an unerring intuition of the right moment to change sides. But this seems to have been the worst that can be said of him, and as much can be said of distinguished men of the twentieth century now dignified and honoured under the title of statesmen. No doubt Locke’s affection for him was founded on less public qualities. In any case, they had in common a strong and sincere hatred of religious and political absolutism.

Locke entered Ashley’s service in 1667 and lived with him in London. His duties were various. He acted as his medical adviser and is said to have saved his life by an operation for an abscess in the chest. He also performed some of the duties of a political secretary, assisting him, among other tasks, with the drafting of a constitution for the new colony of Carolina. In addition he acted as tutor to Ashley’s son and even undertook the task of finding the boy a wife.

In 1672 Ashley became the first Earl of Shaftesbury and Lord Chancellor of England. Locke, sharing his patron’s success, was given an official secretaryship in charge of the ecclesiastical business under the Lord Chancellor’s control. Within a year, Shaftesbury was out of office again, having alienated the king by supporting the Test Act, a measure designed to secure civil and military offices from the supposed treasonable activities of Roman Catholics. Locke’s fortunes did not suffer from this political reverse. He resumed his life as a student of Christ Church, drawing an annuity of £100 from Shaftesbury together with the income of some property of his own. He was now financially independent and, for the time, free from official duties.

His health, however, had never been good and at the end of 1675 he left London for a long stay in France. He went first to Montpellier where he took the cure and met the leading medical men. Some fifteen months later he moved north and spent a year in the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of Paris. One of Locke’s friends in Paris was Bernier, a pupil of the scientific philosopher, Gassendi, whose work undoubtedly influenced Locke’s thinking. Locke was also able to meet leading exponents of the Cartesian philosophy, then at the height of its succes de scandale. (It had recently been prohibited by ecclesiastical influence from being taught in French colleges or universities.) After another visit to Montpellier, he returned to Paris in November 1678 and in the following April crossed the Channel after an absence of over three years.

He found the political situation as dangerous and uncertain as it usually was in Stuart times. Shaftesbury was out of office and in disgrace when Locke left and had actually spent a year in the Tower of London in 1677-8. The ostensible pretext for his imprisonment was the comparatively minor one of refusing to retract an indiscreet suggestion that the reigning parliament was illegally constituted.

In 1678, however, Shaftesbury again returned to power as president of a newly constituted privy council, and when Locke returned from France he re-entered his patron’s service. This time his activities were of a more political and a more secret kind. Shaftesbury was now engaged on extremely delicate political issues. He used his new office to press a bill for the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York, later James II, from the succession to the throne. But he had overestimated the strength of his position and in October 1679 he was once again dismissed. He now turned to support the Duke of Monmouth, a natural son of Charles II and a Protestant aspirant to the throne of England. Unless he was legitimatized, Monmouth had, of course, no constitutional claim to the succession, but he was young, charming, and popular. The king, to ease the political tension, dismissed Monmouth from his army command and banished him temporarily to Holland. Shaftesbury organized clubs all over the country in support of the Duke and used his own considerable prestige and abilities to engage popular opposition to the legitimate successor to the throne.

Locke’s part in these dangerous activities is not too clear. His health was still bad and he spent a good deal of time in the comparative peace of Oxford. But extracts from the letters of a political opponent who was a fellow member of his college are interesting.

March 14, 1681. John Locke lives a very cunning and unintelligible life here, being two days in town and three days out; and no one knows where he goes or when he goes or when he returns. Certainly there is some Whig intrigue amanaging . . . March 19, 1681. Where J. L. goes, I cannot by any means learn, all his voyages being so cunningly contrived . . . I fancy there are projects afoot.

And indeed there were, though we do not know how much Locke knew about them or how far he was implicated. At Oxford he seems to have been extraordinarily discreet about expressing his political opinions. A political opponent, the Dean of his college, later wrote of him: ‘I have for divers years had an eye upon him; but so close has his guard been on himself that, after several strict inquiries, I may confidently affirm that there is not anyone in the college, however familiar with him, who has heard him speak a word either against or so much as concerning the government’. Shaftesbury continued with his intrigues on behalf of Monmouth and Locke could hardly have failed to be aware of what was happening. In July 1681, Shaftesbury was arrested in London on a charge of high treason. After a few months in the Tower he was brought to trial before a jury packed by his political associates and acquitted, amid popular rejoicing. In the following year Monmouth was arrested and Shaftesbury, anticipating further charges, went into hiding. A few weeks later he escaped to Holland where he died at Amsterdam in January 1683.

After Shaftesbury’s flight and death Locke began to feel unsafe in Oxford and in the autumn of 1683 he fled to the safety and tolerance of Holland. His long association with Shaftesbury did not go unnoticed. In the following year the king demanded his expulsion from his studentship at Christ Church. In the spring of 1685 Charles II died and the accession of his brother provoked Monmouth’s ill-fated rebellion. Locke’s name was given to the authorities as one of Monmouth’s supporters and the Dutch government was asked to extradite him. The request was not openly refused but the Dutch made little effort to oblige a government with whom the House of Orange had such small sympathy. Locke went into hiding for a time under the alias of Dr van der Linden. This is probably the only historical case of a great philosopher hiding from the law under an assumed name.

However, he does not seem to have been in any real danger. His friends in England actually obtained for him the offer of a royal pardon which Locke declined, no doubt distrusting a king whose beliefs were supposed to dispense him from the obligation of keeping faith with heretics. He replied to the Earl of Pembroke who conveyed the offer that ‘having been guilty of no ctime, he had no occasion for a pardon’. In the following year his name was removed from the list of wanted persons and, though he did not return to England, he was able to resume his normal life.

Locke was able to use the leisure and security of his stay in Holland for writing. He was now fifty-four years of age and had yet published nothing important. He had been working for some years on his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he began in earnest at Utrecht in 1684. This material was now worked up into a form suitable for publication and in 1688 a French abstract of the Essay was published in the Bibliotheque Universelle by his friend Jean Le Clerc. Moreover he had spent his time while in hiding from his political enemies in writing the Latin version of his first Letter on Toleration.

Meanwhile plans were maturing to remove James II from the English throne and Locke was once again drawn into political in 1687 he moved from Amsterdam to Rotterdam where he came in touch with William of Orange and his English supporters at The Hague. In November 1688, William landed in England, James fled and the ‘glorious revolution’ was accomplished. Three months later Locke ended his five years’ exile and returned to England. He did not leave Holland without some regrets for its civilized tolerance. ‘In going away’, he wrote to a Dutch friend, ‘I almost feel as though I was leaving my own country and my own kinsfolk.’

On his return to England he went to live in rooms at Westminster where he spent the next two years. During this time he was hard at work preparing for publication the philosophical books on which he had been at work in Holland. King William tried to tempt him back into public affairs, offering him the post of ambassador to the Elector of Brandenburg. Locke declined the post, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, for reasons of health. He says in a letter to Lord Mordaunt that he feared the ‘cold air’ and the ‘warm drinking’ of Germany. He accepted instead a sinecure as Commissioner of Appeals which gave him a modest £200 a year in return for some nominal duties.

He was thus enabled to spend most of his time on his philosophical studies. In 1689 the Latin version of A Letter Concerning Toleration appeared. It was published anonymously, both the author’s name and the name of the friend, Philip a Limborch, the liberal theologian, to whom it was dedicated, being indicated by initials. Locke seems to have been nervous about acknowledging his liberal views on so controversial a topic and only in his will did he confess to have written the Letter. The publication excited a good deal of controversy and it is not easy to realize that views on toleration which to-day seem commonplace became so largely through Locke’s efforts. In the course of the controversy Locke published a second letter in 1690 and a third in 1693, restating and clarifying his position. In 1690 he also published the Two Treatises on Civil Government and the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In 1691 he left Westminster to take up permanent residence at Oates in Essex, some twenty miles from London. Oates was the country house of Lady Masham whom Locke had known before his exile in Holland and with whom he corresponded during his stay there. Here he stayed, as the guest of Lady Masham and her husband, Sir Francis, until his death in 1704. He lived there as part of the family, visited by his friends and occupying his time with philosophical controversies and biblical studies. His writings both on political and philosophical subjects were the subject of lively comment and dispute as soon as they were published and most of his work issued between 1691 and his death consisted of answers to his critics. He also published short books on education and economics and a slightly unorthodox defence of the reasonableness of Christianity.

However, he did not live in complete retirement. In 1696 he accepted office as a Commissioner of Trade and for the next four years until ill-health compelled him to resign he spent most of the summer and early autumn at his duties in London. In 1700 he published the fourth edition of the Essay, the last of his works to be published in his lifetime. His health was now failing and he spent the last years of his life in the friendly domestic comfort of the Masham household. His critics pursued him to the end and in 1702 the University of Oxford formally condemned the Essay. Locke wrote to a friend: ‘I take what has been done there rather as a recommendation of the book’. In fact, the Essay had already made its mark on philosophy both in England and abroad. He died at Oates on October 28th, 1704, and was buried in the church yard of the parish church at High Laver where his grave may still be seen.

Locke’s character can be seen in his writings. Cautious, patient, and tolerant, a firm believer in the powers of the disinterested human reason and a fierce hater of authoritarianism and its associated bigotry, both in religion and politics, he embodies the virtues that most of Europe in the seventeenth century so conspicuously lacked.